CHELSEA, QUE.—She’s done it again. Free child care for pre-schoolers in Ontario! This cynical ploy follows a series of recent outrages: free drugs for seniors, a staged increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanded mental-health services, the largest increase in hospital spending in a decade, $300-million more for special needs education.
Where will Kathleen Wynne’s manic spending leave the embattled citizens of Ontario? Apart from healthier and less financially pinched, that is?
The premier, facing an election June 7, has clearly lost the plot according to the Queen’s Park opposition and a critical mass of political pundits and economists. How dare she waste all this money on the wrong people—average and low-income earners, new parents, seniors and children with learning problems—when it will cost the right people so much money?
That, at least, seems to be the gist of the heated, often toxic, denunciations of a premier whose favourability ratings reside somewhere south of Antarctica. Wynne’s Throne Speech, followed by a budget last week, was mostly met with contempt, disbelief and dismissal.
Progressive Conservative finance critic Lisa MacLeod accused Wynne of “running around like Oprah, giving everyone what they want with other people’s money.” Giving everyone what they want: the worst political crime! Never mind that Oprah Winfrey is massively popular, partly because of her career-long identification with ordinary working people, her redistributive instincts are clearly unwelcome in a premier.
When Justin Trudeau’s government tried, for instance, to change protocol at Services Canada by instructing staff to avoid Mr., Ms., Mrs., and simply address clients by their names, there was a predictable uproar. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
As for Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has long championed free drugs and subsidized child care, she was left to grumble that the Liberals “had a chance over 15 years to implement these things, but they chose not to.” But is she delighted that long-postponed promises are finally being fulfilled, that there is relief in sight for families facing astronomical child care costs? Not really. Copycat! seems to be her limp rejoinder.
Of course, Wynne’s party has been in power 15 years, long enough to accumulate a huge backlog of mistakes, mis-spending, broken promises and a patina of institutional arrogance. The premier could promise every Ontarian two free weeks in Cuba at this point and still lose. And it is entirely fair to note that some of her promises don’t take effect for years and that, politics being what it is, some may never materialize at all.
But there is more to the vitriol Wynne provokes than over-familiarity or irreparable brand damage. She appears to embody personal values and political priorities that are out of fashion— have never really been in fashion—in influential circles.
Too often in this country, public policy is viewed through a narrow, self-serving lens and rooted in the notion that money spent on others is money that is being stolen from the individual “taxpayer.” There is no impulse to share, no instinct to give—or, at least, no confidence that government can function as a leveller, a social balm. Wynne is casting this Ontario election as a battle between those who believe government is a force for good and those (like PC Leader Doug Ford) who see it, mostly, as a costly nuisance.
It isn’t a new tension, but lately “progressive” ideas are under daily attack. When Justin Trudeau’s government tried, for instance, to change protocol at Services Canada by instructing staff to avoid Mr., Ms., Mrs., and simply address clients by their names, there was a predictable uproar. The government was accused of social engineering, political correctness run amok, most vociferously by Conservatives.
Jean-Yves Duclos, the responsible minister, later clarified that people will be given a choice of how they wish to be addressed—and similarly, allowed to declare themselves a “parent” rather than “mother” or “father.” The initiative was simply an attempt to acknowledge gay, lesbian and transgender families and individuals, not to eliminate Mother’s Day, but good intentions were lost in the angry over-reaction and the searing ridicule.
The Trudeau government’s attempt to deny summer job funding to organizations that actively oppose abortion ran into similar flak—and had few defenders. Awkward wording, a poorly-designed application form and a belated campaign to explain the policy, left the field open to critics, who claimed Liberals were forcing their values down “everyone’s” throats and even “blackmailing” church groups to disavow their opposition to abortion in return for 30 pieces of government silver. But, again, the intention was one most Canadians would probably support; who wants taxpayer money going to often intrusive and harassing anti-abortion campaigns?
The reason small mistakes become huge controversies is partly inept issues management by governments and partly what former television pundit Ian Capstick last week identified as the toxic partisanship of current political discourse, exacerbated, perhaps, by Donald Trump, but much in evidence during the Harper years. Green Party leader Elizabeth May, too, has repeatedly called for more respectful listening and less heckling in the Commons—and was, unsurprisingly, heckled as she did so last week.
Canadian-born Harvard professor Steven Pinker, in Ottawa recently to promote his latest book, Enlightenment Now, laments the lack of forceful defence for the values of the enlightenment—a respect for reason, science, humanism, and progress. He partly blames the media, with its admitted preference for controversy and scandal over harmony and compromise and the attendant rise of authoritarian populism, as embodied in Trump. To which we might add that conservative voices—against serious action on climate change, against social equity, against redistributive taxation, against taxation generally—are far better financed and connected than the recent immigrant working at Tim Hortons and looking forward to that $15 an hour.
Trudeau and Wynne are not beyond criticism. The prime minister’s approach to climate change is hypocritical and irresponsible. Wynne’s government, and its predecessor, mismanaged the energy file and sold a majority share in Ontario Hydro in an ill-considered attempt to get out of a financial squeeze. Nor are concerns about mounting provincial debt frivolous; they just never seem to come up when small business is getting a tax break, or public subsidies flow to oil companies, or some industrial giant is getting a bail-out.
The government spending that most frequently provokes alarmist headlines, over-wrought editorials and political hysteria is the spending aimed at helping ordinary people. You’d almost think that the well-off, the comfortable, the well-connected, don’t need the money and don’t feel inclined to help those who do.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
The Hill Times